I have been a computer science student for about as long as I’ve been blogging about laptops – I’m close to finishing my 2nd year. In that time, I’ve seen what laptops suit this course the best. Sadly, I bought my laptop before the course started and in a way, I’ve made some mistakes in my judgment – but I’m here to make sure you don’t make them.
I’ll go in-depth on what type of laptop you should be looking for and at the end I’ll give a few of top-notch suggestions that I’d pick if I’d be buying a laptop today. As a final touch, I’ve attached a comparison spreadsheet with over 100 laptops that I’ve compared to reach my final recommendations.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
So what are we looking for?
Major requirement Powerful processor
As a computer science student, you’ll probably have to code in several languages:
- Some scripting language (PHP/Python/Ruby)
- Some functional/logic language (Prolog/Haskell)
- Likely some C/C++/Objective-C
In all of these cases, your laptop performance will not limit the execution of your code. Yes, it might take a second longer to compile or 5 seconds longer to start a Java server but that’s not a good enough reason to stretch your budget for a better processor.
Even though a basic mid-range 2 core processor should suffice when compiling your code. So why am I edging you towards a fast processor? There’s one important reason on why you should aim for a higher-end CPU if possible. Responsive and snappy workflow actually makes you a better and a happier programmer.
Get this, your code will crash or work improperly 100s of times a day and when you consider that your PC is taking 5 extra seconds every time, you are on a verge of experiencing some major nerd rage. On a more serious note, I’m generally very happy that my if a program I’ve written doesn’t work – I don’t need to wait long to know it, fix it and go at it again.
Which processors do I have in mind? Right now, you’ll see these processors most often:
|Low-end||i5-4210U, i5-5200U, i5-6200U||500$ – 700$|
|Lower mid-range||i7-4600U, i7-5500U, i7-6500U, i5-6300HQ||700$ – 900$|
|Upper mid-Range||i7-4710HQ, i7-4712HQ, i7-4720HQ, i7-6700HQ||850$+|
P.S. Do not forget that by getting a faster processor you’re also chipping away at your battery runtime! That’s why I am OK with a low-end/mid-range processors on smaller laptops that are used primarily for lectures and coding on the go.
Major requirement Suitable amount of RAM
Right now I’m using 11 GB out of the 12 GB installed on my laptop. I’m sure I’ll have to update it to 16 GB in the near future due to my work habits. I like to keep most of my stack open.
At this very moment I’m running:
- Sublime Text
- Apache server
- Java Tomcat server
- 2 Ruby processes (Sass compilers)
- Git Bash
- MySQL database
- MongoDB database
- 20 tabs on Chrome (15 permanently pinned)
- Task manager and CPU/GPU temperature monitor
I do not multitask, but I have to switch my work context several times a day between various tasks:
- audio/images/3D courseworks with Java
- Haskell worksheets
- working with other students on an assest web app (using Java Spring framework)
- work with several projects for my freelance clients (PHP and Node.js)
If that resembles the way you like to work – I heavily recommend getting at least 12 GB of RAM or more. But if you rarely go above 10 tabs on Chrome and your budget is under $900, it’s not necessary to go above 8 GB.
Minor requirement Solid State Drive
Affordable SSDs are the best thing to happen to computers in the past 5 years. They’re a lot faster, lighter, more reliable and they end up consuming less power. Their price is still the main (if not the only) reason why we have to cling on the spinning hard drives.
If you can spend over a $1000 for a laptop for your computer science course, having an SSD for your system partition is basically mandatory. And if you’re around $1500 mark, having a large SSD-only storage would be the best.
Right now I’m rocking with 250 GB SSD for my system and applications and 750 GB HDD to store my downloads, images, archives etc. I think you should have at least 500 GB (and ideally 1000 GB) of storage with a minimal 250 GB for an SSD.
For me, as a computer science student, it speeds up my workflow quite a bit, especially when I’m in need to do a search through my files for a particular piece of code. It also tremendously speeds up my work on heavyweight IDEs like Eclipse and NetBeans.
Minor requirement Long Battery Runtime
Long battery time can be amazing : it allows to quickly start and end my work sessions – whether it’s in my home, university computer labs or some coffee shop on campus. Best batteries can offer enough juice for the whole day in the uni. What is more, ability to finally ditch that big black block charger makes taking a laptop a seamless task. I have seen how these types of inconveniences discourage many students from taking their laptops altogether.
For example, in our course, quite often you can bring your own laptop and try out the code samples in the middle of the lecture as the lecturer demonstrates them from his own laptop.
In practice, ~5% of students did that in our course. I am absolutely certain that more of them would if everyone had a lightweight laptop with a heavyweight battery. I’d see only lightweight, ultrabook-type laptops in the lectures and a lot more of heavy brick-type laptops when we HAD (or were heavily encouraged) to bring our laptops for various collaborative projects.
Having an easy-to-carry laptop comes in handy when making project presentations, meeting with coursework teammates outside computer labs etc.
Now we’re on the same page. But what does “long battery runtime” actually means? Where should I look and how should I judge it?
As a best case scenario, you should look at independent tests of battery life while browsing the internet over Wi-Fi. They still tend to overshoot the actual battery time as they tend to run at 10%-30% screen brightness. Usually, you’ll be using 40%-80% (or even 100% on sunny days). Also, test results of brand new laptops are as good as they’ll ever be. Even in a couple of months, your battery can start to perform worse than it did out-of-the-box (mine sure did).
Here’s a quick cheat-sheet for reading battery times and how to roughly convert them to “realistic” battery runtime.
|Manufacturers “sticker spec”||6h||4h 30min||Average (bad for a small laptop)|
|3rd party Wi-Fi benchmark||3h||2h 30min||Bad|
|3rd party Wi-Fi benchmark||7h 40min||6h 50min||OK/Above average|
|3rd party Wi-Fi benchmark||11h 20min||10h||Great|
Major optional requirement Lightweight
Having a light laptop goes hand-in-hand with a long battery life. I recommend looking for a light laptop especially if you see yourself spending a lot of time on campus between lectures.
At the same time, having a light laptop is not all sunshine and rainbows – most people tend to overlook this.
Minor optional requirementDedicated graphics card
I would not usually include this, but computer science and software engineering students love gaming more than any other course. I know, “kids these days”! Though I would be lying if I told that a powerful GPU wasn’t a big deal when I was searching for a laptop. And it didn’t need it for 3D modeling, I can tell you that.
If you are a PC gamer and you can’t wait to get your hands on all the newest gaming titles – you’ll need to look at graphics cards like GTX 980M/970M. For the rest of us, very popular Nvidia GTX 960M/950M chips will be just fine. As for the amount of dedicated memory – 2 GB is enough for 960M and 970M/980M can benefit from 4 GB or more if you want to use Very high/Ultra textures in games.
If you’re willing to make compromises, even 960M can be enough for latest games, if you play on low/medium settings on 1440×900/1600×900 resolution. Under these restrictions, it is easily enough for all casual games, most competitive “esports” titles and many 2015-2016 releases.
But if you want the best laptop graphics card that the Glorious PC master race can offer – 980M is your only good option. Yes, you could go crazy and look at the laptops that use desktop CPU/GPUs but then you’re reading the wrong article, mate.
Laptop suggestions for computer science students
I’ve compared over 110 laptops to select 3 best laptops for computer science course that satisfy the requirements above or, at least, make very reasonable compromises based on their price.
This laptop is not suited for gaming but apart from that, it has a really nice set of specs for its price. So how does it check out against our requirements?
|Major||Processor||Check. Kind of. Intel Core i7-6500U is the latest generation mid-range mobile processor which is enough for most tasks. Though calling it an “i7 processor” is a bit of a stretch.|
|Major||Memory||16 GB? Yes, please. Taking the processor into account, that’s more than enough.|
|Minor||Solid State Drive||500 GB SSDs are very rare in this price range. I couldn’t find anything better ~$800 mark. So, thumbs up to Acer.|
|Minor||Battery Runtime||OK. 5h 30min – not great, but considering other specs and other similar laptops it’s nothing to scoff at.|
|Optional||Lightweight||Average. 5 lbs/2.2 kg is around average for 15.6″ laptops.|
|Optional||Dedicated graphics card||Nope. So, forget the latest releases. You still should be able to play some older games without a problem (with low/medium graphics settings).|
If you’re a fan of 17-inch desktop-replacements, this one is a really good option.
|Major||Processor||Right now, Intel’s i7-6700HQ is probably the hottest notebook CPU. It is everywhere and for a reason – 4 cores (2 threads each) hitting a clock speed of 3.5 Ghz. That’s some serious muscle for any type of project.|
|Major||Memory||16 GB. Nothing more to say.|
|Minor||Solid State Drive||OK. 250 GB SSD + 1 TB HDD. You’ll probably end up changing your downloads folder and storing all images/videos/music/games on your HDD, but 250 GB is enough for software and your code including all your coursework, GitHub repos and your favorite LAMP stack.|
|Minor||Battery Runtime||I haven’t seen many 17-inch laptops with such great battery life. Oh, how have the times changed! 7 hours and 30 mins are just around hitting that magical 8-hour mark and for a massive laptop like this one, this is great.|
|Optional||Lightweight||Not at all. It’s lighter than 17″ laptops from a year or two ago and it’s lighter than most gaming-class laptops, but yeah… It weighs quite a bit. But if you want a laptop with a large screen – you don’t have an option of a lightweight laptop anyways.|
|Optional||Dedicated graphics card||Yes! Nvidia 950M might still be nothing to brag about to your gamer friends, but hell, it’s still significantly better than integrated graphics chips! In short, even latest games can run on low settings.|
ASUS ZenBook Pro is a well-rounded laptop. I love about its huge 4K resolution (2160p) – but if you don’t, you probably will get extra 20 min of battery life just by turning it off. So, your choice!
|Major||Processor||I told ya! 6700HQs are everywhere! So, yes, the processor is good for any type of work. Right now I have a similar processor and I never find an opportunity to complain about it.|
|Minor||Solid State Drive||Good. 512 GB PCIe SSD. 512 GB is OK until you don’t start torrenting massive amounts of LEGAL software/music/movies. Khm.. In all seriousness, 512 GB is just about enough for most people but you might end up needing an external storage down the road, especially if you’re not fond of deleting your old downloads.|
|Minor||Battery Runtime||OK. I have seen better than 5h 40min from Asus Zenbooks, but they are either A LOT more expensive or significantly slower. So, in this case, it should be enough.|
|Optional||Lightweight||Average for its size (5 lbs/2.3 kg).|
|Optional||Dedicated graphics card||Nvidia Geforce GTX 960M is a good enough graphics card for most gamers. It’s not quite enough to play games on highest settings, but apart from that – it’ll do.|
A few more suggestions AKA The Lightning Round
- I’ve got the money – I need a portable gaming laptop – Razer Blade.
- I want a Razer Blade, but cheaper – MSI GS60 Ghost-242.
- I need a solid solid 15.6″ $1000 laptop (no gaming needed) – HP Pavilion 15.6″.
- I liked that HP laptop. Could it now be Lenovo? Yes, Lenovo Y700.
- I just need a small and not a very expensive laptop to take with yourself to the lectures – ASUS ZenBook Flip UX360CA or any Chromebook you can imagine. There are a few promising 13″ Asus and Acer Chromeboks that will be released in late November/December.
Computer Science laptops comparison spreadsheet
As I’ve promised, I’m giving away this comparison spreadsheet which you can use to quickly judge most of the best laptops on the market right now. The spreadsheet I compiled to compare over 110 laptops. I haven’t filled in all battery times/screen data – I’ve collected it for the laptops I already found to be well-balanced in their other specs. You can leave a comment in the spreadsheet (I think you need a Google account for that) and I can fill in some missing data.
Click here to open it in Google Sheets. Of course, it’s free, no registration, no email, no downloads, nada.
Finally, don’t stress out about your laptop – just make sure it intuitively matches your the way you’re planning to use it – if you’re always on the go, don’t buy a 17″ powerhouse. And if you need a gaming rig squeezed into a laptop body – don’t think about 13″-14″ laptops. Well… unless you want to spend a mini-fortune on a Razer laptop.